Remember the uproar when the Reagan administration tried to declare ketchup a vegetable for school lunches?
Well, ketchup may not have cut the mustard. But its cousin, salsa, has received the government's seal of approval.
Seventeen years after the ketchup flap, the Agriculture Department has decreed that school lunch programs can use salsa in crafting a nutritionally balanced menu.
And even the nation's self-appointed food police approve of the action.
"It's tough enough to get kids to eat fruits and vegetables, so we're all in favor of looking for different ways to do that. And this certainly sounds like a sensible one," said David Schardt, an associate nutritionist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Washington-based group known for its critiques of Chinese food and movie-theater popcorn.
Responding to requests from schools in the Southwest and West, the Agriculture Department has announced that school lunch programs can incorporate commercially made fruit and vegetable salsas into their menus. Before that ruling last week, schools had been allowed to use salsas made in their own kitchens.
"We think salsa is a great product and will help in the consumption of more nutritious meals," said Ed Cooney, deputy administrator of special nutrition programs at Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service.
"It's part of our general trend toward enhancing the quality of nutrition education we provide," Cooney said Tuesday. "This is a lifelong experience for kids, learning how to eat properly."
School cafeterias have been dishing up salsa for a while, but it hasn't been considered a reimbursable item under the federal school lunch program, which paid out $4.9 billion to 94,000 schools last year.
USDA officials are clearly skittish about the inevitable comparisons between the salsa rule and the much-ridiculed ketchup debacle.
"Ketchup is really mostly sugar and vinegar," said one Agriculture Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "This is not the same because ... (salsa) is essentially a vegetable salad."
While the ketchup-as-vegetable proposal was circulated as a cost-saving option at a time when the Reagan administration was trying to pare $1.5 billion from the school lunch program, the salsa decision is part of USDA's push toward low-fat, more interesting food options for the 26 million children in the school lunch program, agriculture officials say.
In order to get government reimbursement, schools must offer nutritionally balanced meals that include fruits and vegetables, protein, bread and milk. Last year, over the objections of the cattle industry, the Agriculture Department decided to allow yogurt as a meat substitute.
Under the salsa regulation, schools can get credit for a fruit or vegetable serving if they provide at least one-eighth of a cup of salsa.
Schardt, the nutritioist, is happy about the change because salsa tends to be "less processed than boiled vegetables or fruit in thick syrup."
Written by Michelle Mittelstadt
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